Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Fibres is Frances Poet’s ‘heath and safety’ play, an emotive response to her discovery that an acquaintance had lost both parents, six months apart, due to asbestos poisoning. Poet’s perception of asbestos as ‘something dangerous from the past’ was exposed as a fallacy; subsequently, she learned that more people die of asbestos-related illnesses each year than die in traffic accidents, that the NHS will be footing the bill for corporate greed/negligence until 2040. Mesothelioma takes between twenty and fifty years to develop, and even brief exposure is enough to kill.
Indeed, the brevity of exposure is a key feature of this play. Jack (Jonathan Watson) only works as a shipbuilder for a few days; he’s nervous about the asbestos dust he’s been warned about, so takes a pay cut and becomes an electrician. He thinks he’s dodged a bullet. His wife, Beanie (Maureen Carr), washes his overalls, a simple domestic act fraught with symbolism, as the fibres enter her lungs too.
As you might expect from Poet, there are many layers to be unravelled here; it’s not a simple polemic. There are parallels drawn between the asbestos fibres and the impact of traditional gender roles on a relationship: a slow, invisible poisoning.
Despite the subject matter, it’s not all doom and gloom. Jack and Beanie are a believable couple, muddling through as best they can. They’re facing the horror with fortitude and humour: Jack loves a bit of comedy, and has a catalogue of cringey jokes. Their daughter, Lucy (Suzanne Magowan), is struggling, but her breakdown is shown through a series of bleakly humorous, hide-your-eyes-behind-your-hands-while-your-toes-curl moments.
Breaches in health and safety protocol are given a human face, in the form of Lucy’s boss, Pete (Ali Craig). They work for a fibre optics company, and he’s up against it, trying to meet the demands of a contract while allowing his workers their requisite study days and sick leave. He’s fed up with the union rep’s ‘unreasonable’ demands, preventing him from getting the job done. We’re shown how it happens, how decent people can be pressured into repeating old mistakes. But Pete is given a chance to learn: his fondness for Lucy redeems him.
If this all sounds a bit po-faced, don’t be misled. This plays as a cleverly written domestic tragedy, with a window onto larger political issues. The actors switch between narration and performance; the set (by Jen McGinley) is a fluid, symbolic space, where the characters flit between life and death, the past and the present, dark humour and even darker anger. Jemima Levick’s assured direction ensures that there is no confusion: we always know where and when events are taking place, the pace allowing us time to digest what’s happening.
Fibres is a vital, heartbreaking play with an important message at its core.